Book Review: Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

by - 4:04:00 AM

Title: Optimists Die First 
Author: Susin Nielsen
Pages: 224
Genre: YA Contemporary
Release Date: 21 February 2017

From Goodreads: "Beware: Life ahead.

Sixteen-year-old Petula de Wilde is anything but wild. A former crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula shut herself off from the world after a family tragedy. She sees danger in all the ordinary things, like crossing the street, a bug bite, or a germy handshake. She knows: life is out to get you. The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class with a small group of fellow misfits. Then a new boy, Jacob, appears at school and in her therapy group. He seems so normal and confident, though he has a prosthetic arm; and soon he teams up with Petula on a hilarious project, gradually inspiring her to let go of some of her fears. But as the two grow closer, a hidden truth behind why he’s in the group could derail them, unless Petula takes a huge risk."

Thank you to Wendy Lamb Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for review!

Have you ever read the synopsis of a book and gotten really excited about reading it but when you actually read it you felt super let down by the end and you're wondering if you made the right decision by reading the book? That's unfortunately how I felt about Optimists Die First. I was so excited to read it, but I was so disappointed by the end, and I'm just left feeling bleh about the whole reading experience.

Petula de Wilde is the exact opposite of wild. After a horrible accident involving her younger sister, she's become cut off from the world. Petula sees the danger in everything, from crossing the street to touching a door knob, and is an eternal pessimist. The worst part of her week? Her mandatory art therapy class that she takes with a small group of misfits. When a new boy shows up at her school and eventually in her art class, Petula's life gets turned upside down. Suddenly she's walking past the construction site she purposely avoids and is hopping fences in a graveyard, all because of this boy. But the closer they get, the closer Petula is to discovering why he's in the group in the first place, which may destroy everything they've been working on together.

Plot:
I loved the idea that this book had a main character that was basically afraid of everything. Germs, construction sites, crossing the street, literally anything and everything. Of course, the reason why is horrible and I didn't like that, but it was a great concept that I was excited to see play out. She's basically afraid of dying and takes extreme precautions to ensure that she doesn't die due to the tragedy involving her younger sister. I was interested to see how she handled her anxiety in her every day life and it honestly felt like it was made out to be "cute" and "quirky" rather than something serious that she's going through. The kids in her art class make it out to be no big deal and that she's just weird, and she really seems like she's able to kind of almost turn it on and off once Jacob comes into the picture. That part really bothered me, because I seriously disliked the idea that a boy (or girl!) can come along and save you from a crippling mental illness and make everything butterflies and rainbows. That's not how it works at all, and the fact that it was portrayed that way gave me some serious unhappy feelings. Yes, Jacob tried to help "break" Petula out of her "shell" and tried to help her "get over" her anxiety, but that's not something you can just magically cure. I definitely enjoyed the raw, anxiety-filled Petula more than "this boy came along and loves me and now I'm all better" Petula. She was real, and the guilt and anxiety that she was feeling was real and scary, and I felt like I could relate to that so much better than the "love cured me" Petula. This, of course, is just how I ended up feeling about it, so I highly encourage readers to pick this up and give it a go, because there are some really good and fun things about this book as well! I loved Petula's mom and how she was basically a crazy cat lady, although I felt like it happened because of the loss she experienced which made me really want to hug her and give her more cats. I loved that Petula was a crafter because that's something that I could really relate to. I loved the cat videos that Petula and Jacob made. And, while the art class kids are definitely more background/side characters, I liked that they were all very unique and stood fairly well on their own. So while there were a large portion of things that I didn't enjoy about this book ("quirky" mental illness, being "fixed" by a boy) there were some things here that I did enjoy (cat videos, crafting, being set in Canada, the initial portrayal of Petula's anxiety) and I do think that this is a book that others may enjoy more than I did.

Characters:
As I stated above, I liked Petula pre-Jacob. I definitely wanted to see more of her anxiety and how it affected her day to day life as well as those around her. It ruined her friendship with her best friend and I just wanted to see more of that part of Petula's life. When it came to Jacob, again as I talked about above, I felt like she was able to basically turn off her anxiety. For someone who was scared of germs and would wear mittens to shake hands with people, she got awfully comfortable with being close and intimate with this guy that she just met recently. It just rubbed me the wrong way, personally. I didn't really enjoy Jacob, especially when the book steered towards him "curing" Petula. He was kind of funny, but that was about it. He has a tragic backstory as to why he has a robotic arm and he refuses to share what happened, instead telling various made up stories that are anything but the truth. It's pretty terrible when you find out what the truth is, but it also kind of made me feel like "well yeah that's awful but why just lie about it when all of these people are telling you their horrible backstories and just want to know what happened to you." When the art group does find out, it really messes with how they feel about Jacob and I liked that not everyone was quick to forgive him, especially Petula. As far as the two of them as a couple are concerned, I like to think that they don't stay together once the book is over. I just didn't like them together and I wasn't too much of a fan of them as individual characters either. If I'm being honest, my favorite character would have to be Petula's mom. She had the crazy cat lady thing going and was just miles better than any of the other characters in the book. The art group kids are mainly background characters, although you do get some quick backstory on a few of them that helped them stand out more. In general, I think the characters were alright, but I wish there was more to them that helped me connect to at least more than just the mother. But seriously, I loved the mom.

Writing:
This book definitely had some very easy to read writing. It wasn't hard to follow and I was able to fly through this fairly quickly. Which, that was something I might list as a perk of reading this book is that it's a really quick read. On the other hand, it may be somewhat of a downfall because once you get into the book, that's when it ends. I felt like it ended very fast and it left me with somewhat of a sour feeling when I think about this book. So while it's good that this is a fast read, it also kind of made me unhappy that it was a fast read. But it does have some very nice writing that I enjoyed and found pleasant to read. Petula was written to be very sassy and I definitely found myself laughing at some of the things she said and did! I did enjoy the writing, so that's a plus for me when I was unable to find many pluses throughout the book itself.

Overall, Optimists Die First was not a win for me. It didn't have a decent portrayal of mental health (in my opinion) and the characters were just alright (except for Petula's mom!). The writing was enjoyable but I don't think it was enough to make me want to really like this book like I had hoped I would. I can see where others would enjoy this more than I did, so I encourage you to pick it up and read it and then form your own opinion when it releases on 21 February 2017!

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